A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

Winterfell from Game of Thrones

A novel doesn’t begin to glow until its setting comes to be accepted as true. — Eudora Welty.

By PJ Parrish

I am bingeing on Game of Thrones. I know, I know…I’m the last one to the ceremonial beheading. But that’s the way I roll these days with television. I’m in season six, about halfway through. SO! Don’t any of you DARE include any spoilers in your comments or I will hunt you down and run a Valyrian Longclaw sword up your gut.

Now, I didn’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, but a writer friend of mine read them all, and he tells me he has learned a lot from analyzing how Martin sets up his characters and builds his worlds in just a few pages. Martin made his chops as a short story writer before hitting it big with A Song of Ice and Fire, so that tells you something there. And if you watch GOT, you get whiplash from trying to keep everyone — and every place — straight. There’s even a Game of Thrones For Dummies.

Sometimes, the internecine family story lines feel disjointed and the subplots suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome. I had planned to write today’s blog about what happens when you have too many subplots — as GOT often does — but I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around it. Besides, James already wrote a good post on that years back — click here. 

I want to talk, instead, about GOT’s sense of place. It’s pretty darn amazing. I’m not a  fantasy-phile. (Although I really do have a mad crush on King Arthur). But I have totally bought into the world GOT lays out.  The world feels vaguely medieval  British-Isles-centric, with seven warring kingdoms with knights, ladies, eunuchs, whores, and more rolling royal heads than you can shake a broadsword it. But it’s also got dashikis, deserts, and dragons, oh my.

And don’t even get me started on the blue-eyed zombies living out there beyond The Wall as everyone cryptically mumbles that “winter is coming.”

A short digression: I love great opening TV credits, especially the ones that act as intros to the episode. (Six Feet Under might be my favorite.) The opening of Game Of Thrones is brilliant, not just for its dark throbbing cello score, but because it underscores how important PLACE is in the story. In his piece for Thor.com, analyzing GOT’s sense of place, Brad Kane points out that the opening shows each of the warring kingdoms popping up in a whirring montage of mechanical gears and castles. They are game pieces on a world map (read chessboard).  There, in mere seconds, the complex, conjured world is literally built before your eyes — and if you’re clever, you’ll catch imbedded clues of what’s to come in the plot.

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, go watch the opening for a second to see what I mean:

Sense of place is dear to me. I love books that have it.  I try to write books that honor it. I never start a new book until I can see the world where it takes place.  This has meant actual traveling, down into the Paris catacombs, through San Francisco’s dive bars and the Florida Everglades and up to the farthest tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has meant cyber traveling into ruined Scottish castles, British police stations, and into the dark tunnels below abandoned mental asylums. It also meant one really long Google Street View ride across America on I-80 from New Jersey to Oakland California.

All because I had to see it to make you believe it.

Eudora Welty understood the importance of world building. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she argues that a sense of place is as important as character or plot or symbolic meaning. She tells of how she was struggling with her short story “No Place For You, My Love” — until she took a trip.

“What changed my story was a road trip with a friend down south of New Orleans to see that country for the first (and so far, only) time. When I got back home, full of the landscape I’d seen, I realized that without being aware of it at the time, I had treated the story to my ride, and it had come into my head in an altogether new form.”

“Full of the landscape I’d seen.”  What a great turn of phrase.

But Welty is full of such wisdom. She says the primary responsibility of the writer is to “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance.” Couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones after reading that line.

Which, at risk of turning off you non-GOTers, I must now return to.  If you read the books or watch the series, you will understand immediately what I mean when I praise GOT’s world building power.  If you’re not a fan, I’ll let Brad Kane explain it. Martin and the TV series create three distinct and disparate worlds — and they have nothing in common. But, as Kane points out:

Yet they are all part of the same story. And that’s the genius of George RR Martin. You’d never confuse the barren lands of Winterfell with the towering peaks of the Vale. You’d never mix up the volcanic crag of Dragonstone with the dangerous shores of Great Wyk. Every story world in Westeros and Essos feels visually, culturally, and thematically distinct—and yet it all ultimately fits together.

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.

The telling details. Specifics. Verisimilitude. That is what goes into the best fictional world building. It doesn’t matter if the world you’re building is as small as a rural Virginia police station, or as grand as a ninth century Venetian dukedom. Our jobs as novelists is to make that Virginia cop shop sound, smell, feel, look, like no other place on earth. Our jobs as novelists is to make the long forgotten world of the Venetian doge feel, smell, look and sound as fresh and believable — nay, relate-able — as our own neighborhood of today.

If you make the place come alive in your readers’ minds — if you make them feel it with all their senses — they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Or at least as far as Winterfell.

 

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When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

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